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Coronavirus Infodemic: a golden chance for the Nigerian media

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A medical staff wearing a protective suit unloads a woman from an ambulance on a stretcher at the Emile Muller Hospital in Mulhouse, eastern France, on March 22, 2020, on the sixth day of a strict lockdown in France to stop the spread of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus). (Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP)

The world is under two simultaneous sieges: the first is the coronavirus epidemic which has continued to rise and wreak havoc. Authoritative sources confirm that though fresh infections have come to near zero in China the epicentre, global figures of fresh infections and death are rising. Africa, so far the least hit continent, is gradually amassing figures of infections and fatality. The Coronavirus is indeed a global threat.

The second siege is that of information epidemic, or what has been called infodemic. It is a situation of overwhelming production and distribution of large amounts of information ranging from outright falsehood to near-truths. Like the virus infestation, this too has been rising.

For instance, the sub-Saharan cyberspace went into wild jubilation when it was announced that Chinese doctors claimed that Coronavirus was incapable of harming the black African person. That turned out to be a lie as, within a week, two Nigerians in the diaspora died of complications resulting from the infection.

Within another week, a Burkinabe also died. Again, we were told that the virus could not survive in temperatures above 27o Celsius. With the temperature in some cities hovering close to 40oC, we were right to feel immune until that too proved to be a lie. UNICEF, which was quoted as the source of that information, has since distanced itself. Then came that video of an oriental person who collapsed on the street in Isolo, Lagos, allegedly under the weight of the virus. That too proved to be a lie as we soon learnt that he was floored in fisticuffs with a driver.

What of the audio that says helicopters and private jets would go out about 11pm to spray the country with an antivirus? And rumoured postponement of examination by JAMB which again turned out to be a lie? Since the outbreak, one heap of panicky lies has been tumbling over another, and now we are lost in the information garbage heap. Right now, most Nigerians are at a loss in deciding what is and what is not true about the epidemic and its extent in Nigeria.

The result is self-help and panic. This is unfortunate because this is a time that accurate information can mean the difference between life and death. One hopes that in the end, more people would not have died from panic and misinformation than from the actual infection.

However, this is a chance and challenge situation for the conventional media professional. Here is another golden opportunity for trained and certified journalists to showcase their skills and set themselves apart from that nondescript group of all the others who congest the cyberspace with all sorts imaginations. For this “setting apart” to happen, however, three professional imperatives are needed.

First is the need to verify information before publishing them. There are two aspects of this. The first and easier aspect is in digging beyond the surface to discover the truth in every claim or report. Fact-checking sites have multiplied and many of them are reliable. The second is in holding official actors and agencies to the claims and promises they make around this pandemic. For instance, the Central Bank has announced its intention to inject N1 trillion into the economy to cushion the impact of the Coronavirus infestation. What does it mean to inject? How is this being done?

What is the intended outcome of this injection, and how do we know that outcome when we see it? Nearly every governor is promising one thing or the other as a response to the Coronaviral siege. What is happening to these glamorous promises? What is happening at our national borders? How well shut indeed are the three international airports declared closed? These and a thousand other questions bother Nigerians and they look up to journalists to tackle them at this time.

Second is the need to humanise statistics at a time like this. We are experiencing an epidemic and stat merchants are trying to outdo one another with statistics hot and fresh. They are struggling to have our clicks for therein lies their cash. But statistics are hardly meaningful unless they are told as a human story. This calls for interpretive reporting and storytelling skills that are not within the reach of the untrained. Also, while not preaching a recourse to subjective reporting, it is important that we underscore the need for a balance between hope and despair.

That the fatality rate is less than 5% which implies that 95% of infected people recover is a good basis for a narrative that springs from and calms the reader with infectious hope and triumph. There is much to be hopeful and triumphant about but this calls for a professional, even fanatical, commitment to a kind of reporting that is different from the conventional “bad news sells” neoliberal jargon.

Third is the need to resist the domineering tyranny of the Coronavirus epidemic, that is, its attempt to colonise the entire mediascape. What else is happening besides Coronavirus? On the positive UTME results are being released and kids are notching up incredibly high scores that should merit reportorial attention; Nigerians just shot down the social media bill; and our food sufficiency score is on the rise. On the negative side, Lassa fever is still ravaging just as bandits, Boko Haram, kidnappers and other merchants of death are still claiming lives.

The Coronavirus tyrant wants to silence all of these and blind us to the havocs of these other destroyers. In a 2010 study of the media coverage of the sickle cell anaemia, a pair of researchers found that the overwhelming attention given to HIV and AIDS was responsible for the near-total neglect of the sickle cell anaemia, and citizens’ poor knowledge same. That situation is playing itself out again. It is time the media insisted on setting a comprehensive agenda for the public and, hopefully, for the government.

Reports from lockdown countries show a rapid increase in media consumption by citizens. Should Nigeria also lockdown, there would be increase in the thirst for information, and many would turn to the conventional media. How this thirst is assuaged depends on what the media professional chooses to do.

Ojebode is a professor of Applied Communication and Head, Department of Communication and Language Arts University of Ibadan


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